St. Barbara Limited, the Australian gold mining company that recently announced it was acquiring Atlantic Gold in a $722 million dollar deal, seems to be unfazed by the RCMP’s violent arrest of a citizen last week at a public information session Atlantic Gold was hosting in Sherbrooke (covered by the Halifax Examiner here and here).
Ben Wilson, a communications consultant acting as a spokesperson for St. Barbara, replied to my detailed questions to the company with a predictably PR-filled statement:
St Barbara is strongly committed to transparent and respectful relationships with all of the host communities in which it operates, and our experience is that Atlantic Gold shares these values.
We are aware of the event you refer to, and the Company is liaising with Atlantic Gold to better understand the circumstances of the event, Atlantic’s response and management of community relationships going forward. We understand that there have been numerous such community events previously without incident.
I had asked St. Barbara whether the incident and local opposition to the proposed gold mine at Cochrane Hill near Sherbrooke have changed anything about its plan to acquire Atlantic Gold. Wilson’s statement indicates that they haven’t:
St Barbara is in the process of acquiring Atlantic Gold but at this time the transaction has not concluded, which means it is not possible to provide further comment on this issue. The proposed acquisition is subject to approval by Atlantic Gold shareholders and then a final court order in July. Atlantic Gold retains managerial control of the company until the final court approval.
St Barbara and Atlantic Gold continue to work together to complete the transaction.
The two companies may well be forging ahead with the deal, but not everyone in the industry and in mining investment seems to think that things are hunky-dory for Atlantic Gold after what happened in Sherbrooke.
As the Examiner reported here, the Mining Journal, which bills itself as the “world’s most respected mining investment and business title,” carried a story about the arrest under the headline, “Atlantic joy sours from community gaffe: Atlantic Gold’s deal with Australian gold producer St Barbara could be under threat before the ink is dry following a disastrous public meeting to talk about tailings.”
Atlantic Gold $AGB. Dumping this stock this morning. As a former senior executive of several multinationals, I find the behaviour on the part of the company disturbing to put it mildly.
A wake-up call?
But most of the fallout from the fiasco in Sherbrooke has been here in Nova Scotia. Until the violent arrest and the disturbing videos that captured it (which the Halifax Examiner put online here and here), most media in the province were not doing a great deal of digging into the details of Atlantic Gold’s project to develop not one but four open pit gold mines along the Eastern Shore. Media coverage of the latest gold rush in the province was fairly scarce, and sometimes unquestioningly positive — touting jobs rather than examining all the risks.
Citizens with serious concerns about the high environmental costs of open pit gold mining were given sporadic media coverage. And yet some of those citizen groups had been warning about the risks of gold exploration and mining for months, even years.
Among them are the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association, Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (of which John Perkins, the man arrested in Sherbrooke is a member), and more recently, the No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) campaign spearheaded by the St. Mary’s River Association to oppose the proposed gold mine in Cochrane Hill.
The incident last week in Sherbrooke has suddenly put those groups and their concerns, Atlantic Gold and its proposed gold mine in Cochrane Hill, and the behaviour of the RCMP into the official and social media spotlight.
Atlantic Gold has been working on damage control, issuing press statements containing misleading and inaccurate information.
Eight days after the incident, Atlantic Gold CEO Steven Dean issued a letter to “the residents of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia and surrounding communities” in which he expressed “sincere regret” for the incident that “disrupted a meeting we hosted regarding our Cochrane Hill Gold Mine project.”
As with previous Atlantic Gold statements, Dean’s letter glosses over the ugly reality of the “incident,” taking no blame for it, and leaving out important details of how it all happened. Those can be found here, and they do not correspond with what Dean wrote in his letter:
Unfortunately, on May 23, there was an incident during the community meeting that resulted in an altercation and the arrest of an individual. The individual had been asked to leave the information session by our security staff and was subsequently removed by the RCMP. This was an unfortunate and regrettable incident, and we are conducting an internal review to understand what happened and to ensure we are fostering spaces where community members can exchange information and engage in discussions while feeling safe and respected.
No word about the security guard’s failure to identify himself or to say why he had told not just one but four people (including me, there to report on the session) to leave the public meeting when none had caused a disturbance of any kind.
And no apology to John Perkins, who suffered minor injuries and was badly shaken by the violent way he was handled by the RCMP officer.
The RCMP have not issued any statements since the initial one that repeated the incorrect claim made in the 911 call to Sherbrooke RMCP that “police assistance was required at a public meeting due to several persons causing a disturbance.”
Asked whether there would be an investigation into the brutal arrest of John Perkins and for details about the officer who made the arrest, RCMP spokesperson Lisa Croteau provided this cryptic reply:
At this time, there is no formal complaint in this matter. Anyone with concerns about the conduct of an RCMP member may call the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission [for the RCMP] at 1-800-665-6878.
I also asked the RCMP in what capacity two of its officers appeared in a photograph (above) taken in 2017 at Atlantic Gold’s Moose River mine, flanked by the company’s general manager, Tony Woodfine, COO Maryse Belanger (holding the gold bar, who was sitting at the head table in Sherbrooke), and CEO Steven Dean.
Croteau replied with two bullet points:
- The RCMP attended the opening of a mine in Moose River on October 11, 2017, along with provincial government and other representatives. The members attended to ensure public safety and build community relationships.
- RCMP is routinely invited to community events and often appear in photos as part of those events.
I then asked her if the opening of an open pit gold mine owned by a private Vancouver company with Australian roots could really be construed as a “community event.”
The RCMP attends community events of all shapes and sizes, including those coordinated by private companies. We are there to maintain public safety and build community relationships. This was one such event.
Local opposition to the mine growing
The ramped up media attention to Atlantic Gold’s mining plans in Nova Scotia, at least its plan to put in an open pit mine at Cochrane Hill — if not the other two, one of which will overlap with the Liscombe Game Sanctuary — has meant new groups and people going public with their concerns about the effects of such a mine on the St. Mary’s River and the area around it.
One is Nova Scotia Nature Trust, which its executive director Bonnie Sutherland, during an interview on CBC Halifax Information Morning this week, said is “traditionally not an environmental issues group.”
“But the proposed mine directly impacts the Nature Trust,” she said, and this means they have been forced to learn about what the mine means and its environmental impacts.
The Nature Trust recently announced that it was celebrating four new conservation sites that are:
… located on the St. Mary’s River, north of Sherbrooke, Guysborough County. Together the new conservation lands add 540 acres to almost 800 acres already protected as part of our long-term land assemblage initiative on the river.
The first is a 230 acre property generously donated by Paul and Marsha Sobey, adding to an inspiring, long-standing legacy of conservation support by the Sobey family on the river.
The problem is that one parcel of the Nature Trust land is on the route of a new road that Atlantic Gold plans to put in for the proposed Cochrane Hill mine, for which it intends to “realign” three kilometers of Highway 7 (details of Atlantic Gold’s Moose River Consolidated Project, which involves the three proposed mines and the one already operating at Moose River, can be read here).
If that road goes in, Sutherland said in the CBC interview, it would mean “chopping down trees and paving the Nature Trust’s protected lands.”
The following day, Paul Sobey, retired CEO of Empire Co, told CBC Halifax Information Morning about his concerns, calling the plan to put an open pit gold mine on Cochrane Hill “mind-boggling.”
The Nature Trust and Sobey are not the only ones concerned about the precious ecology of the area. Another group that has been working for years to restore the Atlantic salmon population in the river is the St. Mary’s River Association, which is spearheading the No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) campaign.
Just a week before the ill-fated Atlantic Gold meeting in Sherbrooke, federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson visited the picturesque historic town and announced $1.2 million in additional funding for watershed and coastal habitat restoration on the Eastern Shore.
The wetlands conservation group Ducks Unlimited Canada also owns a piece of land for restoration on the banks of the St. Mary’s River, close to the proposed mine site. Conservation Programs specialist Lee Millett told the Halifax Examiner that in late April, Ducks Unlimited obtained 60 acres of mostly agricultural land near Stillwater, a couple of kilometres downstream from the Nature Trust land. He said the property is a “compensation project” for wetlands that will be destroyed on the site of Pieridae Energy’s proposed LNG export facility in Goldboro.
Millet said that the idea is to restore the land to “shrub swamp” — a valuable wetland ecosystem that is habitat for the endangered wood turtles. He said that such restoration should also be beneficial to Atlantic salmon in St. Mary’s River, as it slows down and cools water going from the wetland into the fish habitat in the river.
Millet said he had only heard rumours about a proposed gold mine in the area, and he doesn’t know what impact it might have on the wetland that Ducks Unlimited is restoring on the St. Mary’s River.
There is also a large amount of land along the St. Mary’s River that is pending designation as protected provincial wilderness by the province.
When “protected” land isn’t protected in Nova Scotia
None of the “protected” Nature Trust or Ducks Unlimited lands have any legal protection from mineral exploration or mining.
In Nova Scotia, mineral rights trump a lot of others — what lies underground belongs to the Crown. As reported here, the only places where mineral exploration and mining are prohibited are protected wilderness areas, nature reserves, beaches and provincial parks, and lands such as national parks and First Nation reserves.
Other conservation lands and reserves are not off limits for mineral exploration and mining.
Nor is private land safe. If landowners refuse to grant permission for mineral exploration or mining on their property, Nova Scotia’s Mineral Resources Act authorizes the minister to override them and grant that permission.
If someone refuses to sell land to a mining company that wants to go after underground riches on their property, Section 27 (1) of the Act grants the company the right to apply to the minister for a vesting order and have the land expropriated. This is what Atlantic Gold’s predecessor, the Australian company D.D.V. Gold, did to the Higgins family so it could go ahead with the Tuoquoy mine at Moose River.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Atlantic Gold refers to Nova Scotia as a “mining-friendly” jurisdiction.
Low costs, hefty profits
But there are other ways that Nova Scotia caters to the mining industry, and helps companies keep their own costs low and profits high. Nova Scotia receives a mere 1% “net value royalty,” a royalty scheme that permits corporations to do a lot of fancy bookkeeping to keep royalties to a minimum.
Atlantic Gold’s reports, corporations and publicity materials are emblazoned with the boastful claim that the company is the “lowest-cost gold producer in the sector.” The company’s only mine is in Nova Scotia, so that means this province offers conditions that allow for these low production costs that Atlantic Gold boasts about.
In March this year, at the annual Prospectors and Developers Association (PDAC) convention in Toronto, BNN Bloomberg’s Andrew Bell asked Atlantic Gold CEO Steven Dean how the company kept its production costs so low. Dean replied that it was a combination of several factors, including a “great location” and the grade of the ore.
He said the Moose River mine was in a “low-yielding forestry country” and added, “The Nova Scotia government have been really supportive of us because … we are creating jobs.”
In the interview, Dean said that the company’s profit on every ounce of gold it produced is “roughly” $1,000. He estimated that in 2019, the mine would produce between 92,000 and 98,000 ounces of gold.
That would mean a profit of between $92 and $98 million.
As for how much Atlantic Gold actually pays various levels of government in taxes, royalties, and for the reclamation bond, those figures are reported to the federal government that posts them, according to the Extractive Industries Transparency Measures Act (ESTMA).
Atlantic Gold’s ESTMA report for 2018 shows that it paid the government of Nova Scotia $1,180,148 in royalties for the gold it produce that year. It reports no taxes paid to the federal or provincial governments.
Toward the end of his interview with Steven Dean at PDAC in March, Bell suggested to him that with its low costs, Atlantic Gold must be on people’s “radar” and ripe for takeover. Dean replied that while Atlantic Gold would love to stay and “grow the business,” he admits that if the right offer came along, they would consider it.
A couple of months later, in mid-May, that is what happened. On May 15, St. Barbara announced its intention to purchase the company and Atlantic Gold said it had accepted.
Based on how St. Barbara replied to my questions, it looks as if nothing is going to derail the deal. Not the violent arrest of a citizen at the Atlantic Gold information session, not the flurry of media reports highlighting local concerns about the Cochrane Hill mine, not the press release from the St. Mary’s River Association that declares the company has “lost their social licence to operate.”
Then again, why would St. Barbara be reconsidering the purchase?
Despite all the negative publicity, environmental concerns and local opposition to the proposed mine, Atlantic Gold shares are doing just fine.
At this year’s PDAC convention in Toronto, Atlantic Gold COO Maryse Belanger told investors, “I always say it’s not about making gold. It’s about making money.”
She didn’t need to add that it’s also not about people and their concerns, or the environment either.
Joan Baxter is author of the four-part investigative series, “Fool’s Gold: Nova Scotia’s myopic pursuit of metals and minerals,” which was a joint publication of the Halifax Examiner and Cape Breton Spectator.
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